NEW YORK – Pssst, Hollywood: enough already with the over-hyped blockbusters (search).
That's what audiences seem to be telling Tinseltown as green giants, sexy private eyes and sci-fi cyborgs all get their box-office butts kicked this summer.
Movies like The Hulk, Charlie's Angels and Terminator 3 all opened big, but dropped off moviegoers' screens in subsequent weeks. Meanwhile, lesser-hyped films like 28 Days Later, Whale Rider, Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Nemo are capturing box office booty.
"Nemo and Pirates have a good story," said Brandon Gray, president of the box office tracking firm boxofficemojo.com. "Story is what sells a picture. Everything else is second: special effects, stars, eye-candy. People go to the movies to hear a good yarn."
Every summer has high-profile bombs and sleeper hits, but this year the sound of blockbusters falling is deafening. Box office (search) receipts are down more than 3 percent from last summer, and the drop in audience attendance in the second weekend of a movie's run has shocked some.
"We're not seeing only a dramatic fall off [after opening weekend], we're seeing a precipitous one," said Thomas O'Neil, host of movie awards Web site, goldderby.com. "It's common to see 30 to 40 percent drop off, but we're seeing a 50 to 60 percent drop off."
Several factors have contributed to the lackluster performances, including bad word-of-mouth, competing blockbusters and changing movie-going habits.
"If I don't see a movie in the first weekend or second weekend, I may not see it at all," said Matt Kozlowski, a 32-year-old self-described movie junkie from Houston. "Once a movie comes out, five months later and you can go buy it on DVD."
Starting with X2: X-Men United in May, an onslaught of "event" movies hit theaters and blockbuster fatigue syndrome set in.
"Moviegoers didn't have a chance to breathe," said Gray. "The whole idea of an 'event' movie becomes meaningless."
People tired of the hype often turn to more subtle fare for entertainment. And this summer is no exception.
"28 Days Later is a very successful picture in terms of profit. It cost $8 million to make and is on its way to making $40 million," said Gray. "This summer, Whale Rider has the momentum, and Capturing the Friedmans is doing well for a documentary. [Small films] have always been the sanctuary from the blockbusters."
Some fans say bad moviemaking is responsible for lower sales.
"A lot of big movies have been disappointing. The Matrix Reloaded was terrible," said Mark Curtis, 40, from Boise, Idaho. "I thought T3 was really good, but I almost didn't see it because of the other sequels... I had the same feeling about Charlie's Angels as I did about The Matrix…It was all special effects and no storyline. I kept thinking, ‘what a huge waste of money.’”
The blockbusters have no shortage of star power and marketing muscle. But like a fireworks (search) display that lasts too long, the films offer little for viewers to hold on to.
One bright star on the horizon that may be a blockbuster in an Oscar (search) movie's disguise is Seabiscuit, opening Friday.
"This could be the real contender for not only awards glory, but box office glory," Gray said of the Tobey Maguire film. "It's the kind of movie the public seems to be yearning for at this point… It may not be No. 1 its first weekend, but it's going to be a marathoner, not a sprinter."
Audiences seem unsure how to react to Seabiscuit opening against summer's popcorn flicks. But judging from reviews, the public will be enchanted by the underdog tale.
"It's one I am interested in seeing, but I don't have to see it the opening weekend," said Kozlowski. "It doesn't seem like a summer movie."
Curtis, too, is wary of the horseracing flick, but said good buzz could change his mind. "I don't have plans to see it, but it's one of those movies that I could be swayed by word-of-mouth."
But will Hollywood get the picture about the public's shifting movie tastes? Not likely, said Gray.
"We may see fewer sequels, but it doesn't mean Hollywood will be more original," he said. "There just won't be a 2 or 3 at the end of every title."